The Oxford Book of Ballads - online book

A Selection Of The Best English Lyric Ballads Chosen & Edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch

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PREFACE
fortunately it lies almost as wide of my purpose as of my learning. My reader did not require Sir Patrick Spens or May Colvin in a dozen or twenty versions : he wanted one ballad, one Sir Patrick Spens, one May Colvin, and that the best. How could I give him the best in my power ?
There is only one way. It was Scott's way, and the way of William Allingham, who has been at pains to define it in the preface to his Ballad Book (Macmillan) :—
The various oral versions of a popular ballad obtain­able throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland, are perhaps, even at this late day,1 practically innumerable— one as ' authentic ' as another. What then to do ? . . . The right course has appeared to be this, to make oneself acquainted with all attainable versions of a ballad. Then (granting a ' turn' for such things, to begin; without which all were labour in vain) the editor may be supposed to get as much insight as may be into the origin and character of the ballad in question; he sees or surmises more or less as to the earliest version or versions, as to blunders, corruptions, alterations of every sort (national, local, personal) on the part of the reciters ; he then comes to investigate the doings of former editors, adopting thankfully what he finds good, correcting at points whereupon he has attained better information, rejecting (when for the worse) acknowledged or obvious interpolations or changes. He has to give it in one form —the best according to his judgement and feeling—in firm black and white, for critics, and for readers cultivated and simple.
This fairly describes Scott's method as well as Allingham's own. But while I must claim along with
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